Sofonisba Anguissola continued painting well into her senior years and stopped only after her eyesight failed, as Anthony van Dyck noted in his sketchbook.
The Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo attributes this sweet Madonna and Child to Sofonisba in the seventeenth century.
Sofonisba Anguissola first painted Catalina Micaela, Infanta of Spain, the Lady in Ermine, when Catalina Micaela was a child.
Sofonisba Anguissola rendered a miniature painting of each Infanta of Spain in a Book of Hours, previously owned by the French King Francois I who passed it to his daughter in law Catherine de Medici on his death in 1547. Catherine possessed this Book of Hours for forty-two years and inserted family portraits of their line into the Book of Hours along the way. It contains an anonymous portrait of Catalina Michaela’s parents Isabel and Philip II, and a portrait of each Infanta, Isabella Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela as children, both of which are attributed to Sofonisba Anguissola (Bibliotheque Nationale, MS n.a.l, 82, fol. 196, see Gazette Des Beaux-Arts December 2002, “Catherine de Medici and Her Two Spanish Granddaughters: Iconographical Additions from a French Sixteenth-Century Book of Hours” by Dana Bentley-Cranch. (307-318, 311).
Sofonisba knew Catalina Micaela, the Lady in Ermine, cradle to grave, just like she knew the line of Spanish Habsburgs– personally and intimately.
Portrait of Philip II with Rosary (c. 1568) Prado Museum, Madrid
Sofonisba was one of the 17 original ladies in waiting chosen for the court of the new fourteen year old Spanish queen, the former Elisabeth de Valois, daughter of Henry II of France and Catherine de Medici. Eight Spanish noblewomen and eight French noblewomen comprised the rest of the young queen’s court. Sofonisba stood out from the other ladies in waiting as the only one chosen for her talent rather than her social status.
On the night of the royal wedding, courtiers hesitated to dance at the wedding banquet. Girolamo Neri, the ambassador for the Duke of Mantua, Gugliemo Gonzaga, wrote to his lord, “il signore Ferrante Gonzaga fu il primo ch’incomincio’; quale ando’ a predere quella Cremonese che dipinge, ch’e’ venuta a star con la regina, et fece la via a multi alter che ball arono dapoi.” Signore Gonzaga was the first to began [dancing] and he went to take the one from Cremona who paints, who came to stay with the queen, and [they] made a path for the others to begin dancing after. (Cremona Catalogue 367, citing ASMn Gonzaga, Esteri 590, letter dated February 8, 1560).
Within months of the royal wedding, Sofonisba began private painting sessions with the new young queen. The two women collaborated in their new life together in Spain. This is the beginning of Sofonisba’s extensive personal relationship with the Habsburg royal family.
In 1563, Giovan Paolo Lomazzo praised Sofonisba in his Sogni, “Una femina Cremonese, della quale il nome e’ detto Sofonisba…molti pittori vallenti hanno giudicati quella avere il pennello levato di mano al divino Tiziano…” (Cremona Catalogue, 404). “A Cemonese woman called Sofonisba…many painters judge her brush to be elevated to the level of the divine Titian.”
Centuries later, Isabella Stewart Gardner bought a Sofonisba thinking it was a Titian.
In September of 1559, Amilcare Anguissola wrote as a devoted and obedient vassal “devotissimo, et ubidiente vassallo” to Philip II, the King of Spain, to accept the summons sent to his very dear daughter Sofonisba “me tanto carissima figliola” to serve as a lady in waiting to the next Queen of Spain “Serenissima nostra Regina” the French princess Elisabet de Valois, daughter of Catherine de Medici and Henry II.
Amilcare hoped that Sofonisba would be housed as if in a monastery, “una Religioso Monestero, molto mi consolo”
How wrong her father was. Sofonisba’s life at the Spanish court from 1560-1573 was anything but cloistered.
In September 1549, the future King of Spain Philip II, paraded through Cremona, Lombardy during a tour of his future realm. Sofonisba Anguissola would have caught her first glimpse of him then, during The Prince’s Parade.